ProductFTW #19: Project Management (Not Product Management)

Note: Today, we bring you a guest post from our friend, Julia Baker. She began her career as a Project Manager at First Data. She progressed through roles such as Technical Program Manager at Yahoo!, Senior Program Manager at Amazon, and Senior Director of TPMO at ServiceTitan. Most recently, she served as VP of PMO at System1.

Illustration depiciting elements of proejct management

The Value of Project Management in Software Development Teams

As a professional project manager who intentionally chose this career path, I have witnessed my profession undergo significant challenges over the last few decades, especially within software development. When product management emerged in the 1980s, it became more economical for some companies to assign all non-technical tasks to this single role. Then, in the early 2000s, with the emergence of the Agile Scrum Master, the broader job of Project Manager (which is framework agnostic) was replaced in many companies with the more narrow Scrum Master role. Jeff Sutherland, one of the founders of Scrum, famously exclaimed in his book SCRUM: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, “I went to the CEO and told him we were scrapping the Gantt chart. He was shocked and demanded to know why. ‘How many Gantt charts have you seen in your career?’ I asked. ‘Hundreds,’ he replied. ‘How many of them were right?’ He paused. ‘None.’”1

The Project Manager became the boogeyman, a relic of the past associated with waterfall projects and (the horror) Gantt charts. This trend continued through the years, and the title Project Manager in Software Development organizations became less common, replacing it with Program Manager, TPM, Scrum Master, Delivery Manager, Release Manager, and a few others. While the title may change, the job remains the same.

Despite this perception, I contend that the profession of project management remains incredibly valuable and has evolved to be crucial in the era of product-led growth. It's important to note that the purpose of a Gantt chart is not to be infallible but to visualize the known tasks on a timeline while accommodating changes. Today, these Gantt charts have become even more powerful with generative AI tools that can simulate project scenarios. 

What is Project Management?

A 1976 article in Project Management Quarterly defined project management as “the art of coordinating resources and directing unidisciplinary groups so that the components of work performed by each group accumulate into a multidisciplinary team effort which achieves the desired objectives (or contracted scope of work) on time and within budget.”2 In business schools, Project Management is taught within the scope of Operations Management, encompassing not only the management of the projects but also the improvement of operational processes within an organization. 

In modern software development organizations, project managers do more than run meetings, resolve blockers, and push projects forward. They also coordinate releases, facilitate brainstorming and planning sessions, and continuously refine workflows to enhance business impact, team happiness, quality, and time to market. Most project managers are hands-on in creating dashboards, project boards and documents to improve visibility on progress. They run the Agile rituals and/or coach the team on best practices. They keep up with new literature in the industry and collaborate with peers to learn new techniques and tools. 

The Diminishing of the Project Management Function 

Recently, the trend in layoffs has hit project management teams very hard. The reasoning seems simple: anyone can run meetings, track projects, and communicate progress—so why dedicate a role to it? The emergence of AI project management tools that create meeting notes and plans has given the illusion that the job can easily be spread out among Product and Engineering managers. 

While this might hold in some organizations with fewer touchpoints, in most, managing all the project dependencies and team members, ensuring everyone is aligned and delivering their parts, is a full-time job.

Why Dedicated Project Managers are Essential for Product-Led Growth

Project Management is an interrupt-heavy job. Product Managers and Engineering Managers need long stretches of uninterrupted time to think, create, and collaborate. Taking on project management responsibilities reduces their time for strategic thinking and running experiments to inform the next phase of product development. Without a project manager, managing delivery becomes the priority job, with commitments already made and developers already coding. Teams lose a neutral third party whose job is to resolve conflicts between team members, shine the light on key problems, and help ensure everyone is on the same page on what needs to be done. 

This shift takes the organization further from a Product Led Growth strategy, which is key to improved customer experience, better revenue per employee, lower customer acquisition costs, and a higher valuation. 

If you care about achieving these outcomes, consider having and empowering skilled Project Managers. This approach allows each role to focus on its strengths, ensuring that all phases of product development are effectively handled. 

1 Sutherland, Jeff. Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time First Edition., Crown Business, 2014.

2 Caspe, M. S. (1976). An overview of project management and project management services. Project Management Quarterly, 7(4), 30–39.

About ProductFTW

ProductFTW is a weekly newsletter about product management, with a focus on real-life experiences in startups. We want to help product leaders be successful by giving realistic approaches that aren’t for giant tech companies. We know you don’t have a full-time product designer on each team. We know your software probably hasn’t been used by millions of people worldwide–yet. We’re here to bridge the content gap from building your product and team to scaling it.


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